What game masters (and their monsters) should say during a combat encounter

defending_against_frost_giantsDuring a combat encounters, I focus on keeping play moving. A faster tempo means players spend less time waiting between turns. Waiting never adds fun.

Despite my focus on tempo, I do more than count initiative and tell players when they hit. I try to describe enough of the action to make the scene vivid. I speak for the villains. Still, I worry that some player will think, Quit blabbing so I can take my turn, so I aim to add color without slowing the game.

In combat encounters, my monsters and I talk about three sorts of things:

1. Villainous monologues

Speaking dialog for your villains transforms them from bags of hit points into enemies. In comics, villains mock the fools that oppose them, and we hate them for their contempt, arrogance, and cruelty. Some of the fun Dungeons & Dragons comes from crushing evil. Good dialog makes your villains seem more real, more detestable, and more satisfying to crush.

Also, I reveal the monsters’ tactics through dialog. The ogre might say, “You hurt Grug, so I smash you.” The necromancer might say, “Barbarian, I have just the enchantment for weak-willed cretins like you.” This reframes the battle from the us verses the game master into us verses the monsters. I want players invested in their characters, but when I single out their character for attack, sometime it feels personal. If the monsters explain themselves, the GM starts to disappear.

2. Summary

At the end of a turn, if a PC does something noteworthy, give a short, vivid description of the event—or invite the player to describe it. Some GMs ask players to describe their kills. D&D includes a lot of kills, so for my taste, describing them all becomes tiresome and too gruesome. Especially with kids at the table. Especially when those kids loose their imaginations. Instead, focus on describing the big spells, stunts, transformations, setbacks, and feats of valor. The summary should only take a few seconds.

3. Urgency and exigency

After the summary, call the next player to act, and then tell them the biggest crisis on the battlefield. This advice comes from the Angry GM. “A player’s turn in combat needs to have both urgency (there’s an emergency that needs to be dealt with) and exigency (if you don’t take action right now, you will lose your opportunity). That’s what makes combat scary and that’s what keeps it running forward.” For example, say “Agnes, the wolves have knocked Kedric to the ground and look ready to gut him. What do you do?” Such transitions call the player to attention, focus them on the game, and increase their sense of urgency.

4. Exposition

Screenwriters cannot pad a movie fight scene with dialog without strangling the pace. But in a role-playing game, you can fit dialog into a fight. If you want to compare RPG fight scenes to another medium, compare them to comics. In comic-book fights, battles stretch time. I’ve seen Captain America deliver 50 words on freedom in the span of a single punch.

Similarly, I’ve seen D&D players squeeze a 5-minute strategy conference into a 6-second round. (If the players enjoy tactics and they’re not just telling the new player what to do, I just assume that yesterday, at the campfire, the PCs planned tactics for situations like this.)

Most adventures need some exposition: essential information needed to make sense of events, or clues the that lead to the next scene. Sometimes all GMs find themselves relaying some essential bit of background while the players grow impatient. Their expressions say, “Blah, blah, blah. Just tell us what to kill.”

Why not add exposition while the players know what to kill? You never have a better hold on their attention. Unlike in a movie, your villains can monologue during a fight, revealing their history, exposing their plans, and so on. “My father defeated the demon Chirix to win that staff, you shall not have it.” Just don’t recite more than a few lines at a time, stalling play. The players might allow themselves a 5-minute strategy conference, but your villain cannot unfold a page and say, “As a free action, I would like to read a statement.”

Do as a I say and try to do

I have a confession to make. I aim to enhance all my fights with colorful dialog and descriptions, but sometimes I lose myself in the business of keeping the turns moving and planning my monsters’ next move. If you ever happen to find a seat at my game table, you’ll see how well I’m doing.

When you serve as game master during a combat encounter, what do you say?

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6 Responses to What game masters (and their monsters) should say during a combat encounter

  1. Ripper X says:

    What a great article! I try and describe what the players think that they see. This is how I run almost all of my encounters, I try to simulate that panic which happens, so the information that I give may not be what is actually there. As far as my monsters go, typically during most encounters, the monsters speak their own language, they’ll yell at each other and if a character can speak that language some what, I’ll let them pick a word or two out of what is being said.

    My pace is frantic during melee or ambushes, once the players draw their swords I don’t let up on them. Everything becomes chaos, if they start trying to talk with one another then my monsters gain an attack. If they spend too long before engaging the enemy they will be heard, if the players spend too long in one spot, and the place is dangerous, I’ll set a timer, a nice loud kitchen timer that ticks, once the bell rings, time is up.

    I can usually get away with this because we play at a fairly slow pace, there are times when the players are in charge of the timing, but a combat encounter is not one of those times.

    Encounters with an intelligent enemy, there are those that hide their cards, and those that flaunt them. Information is always a quantity in my worlds, only idiots show their cards. Capturing an enemy and trying to learn what he knows is a very good strategy, and a bargaining chip if one does become captured.

  2. Loric says:

    Great article. I’m just getting started GMing and I’m still learning what works for me at the table. Angry’s article on running combat is one of my all time favorites. I find that sometimes my players are talking before I can deliver any dialog from my villain, so I’m not quite sure how to work with that.

  3. flyboy1986 says:

    Excellent topic and advice. Real combat is chaotic and simulating this with vivid descriptions, DM pacing, and player timer can do this well.

  4. Fractalbat says:

    In a good group, this can become a feedback loop with the players getting into it to. I love it when my players say things like, “I flourish with my sword and then try to slash his throat out.”

    This also leads to potentially hilarious moments when they then roll a one.

  5. Timothy Park says:

    David, another insightful and useful article. The notion of delivering (or reinforcing) key information during a fight when attention is strong is something I intend to try tomorrow night.

    Some of what you say here folds into some things I’ve been doing to manage my game.

    I’m rather tired of what seems to be the typical “rut” of Wisdom (Perception) check, Initiative, and then the rounds of combat. The pattern has gotten predictable. (And this article points out some ways to improve that situation.)

    One thing I’ve been doing outside of combat is requesting single and multiple skill checks at different points and making the implication clear that the results guide the options and information I present to the party.

    I’ve backed this up by adding two columns to my character spreadsheet when I DM: Passive Investigation and Passive Insight. (In addition to Passive Perception.) These three give me an idea of “Who notices what and how it is that they notice things.” I got the idea for this and the active checks from the PHB where it does mention that there are other kinds and ways of doing checks. Bluntly, my main motivation is to spread things around and engage more players more actively. In the previously mentioned rut, the tendency is for the character with the best Perception modifier to be the one constantly noticing things first and telling everyone else. The Rogue tends to act first in fights. The Rogues and Fighters dominate the fights. Yawn. Same pattern.

    By breaking things up a bit and using the other kinds of perce*iving*, I think it engages more and creates more verisimilitude. Perception means you notice something — not necessarily that you are aware of what you’re noticing. “I hear something … odd.” Investigation is more about knowing what you’re looking at. Insight is more about sense and intuition. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this Chewie …” My classic example is the perceptive rogue pointing out all the buildings and birds in the city. The insightful cleric notices that one building is out of place and has a “feeling” about that building, if nothing else the black birds are sitting on that building and no others. The absent minded wizard, when pointed out that there are buildings and such goes “My, what is that Netherese Library doing *here*??? Oh, and ravens … ravens on a Netherese building … there is a legend about that …. You’re right to be uneasy, my friends.”

    Where these come into play is that these stats tell me who will notice things and “have things come to mind” and in what ways as in my example. The more active checks I’ve started asking for in batches and then use the aggregate with the passive stats to guide what I share and when I do.

    That guidance provided by the passive stats would fit in with the in combat descriptions you speak of. The fiendish warlock makes his speech, drawing the party’s attention to something the significance of which is lost on all but for the highly intelligent Sage Wizard, for instance, who discerns in the fray the Achilles Heels of the Evil Warlock’s fiendish plan ….

    The whole might serve to let the strengths of the individuals shine more within the party.

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